Sports Production

Of all the formats of television production, sports coverage is unique both in the types of personnel required and the equipment and configuration of the production truck involved. The only script is the game schedule and rulebook. The outcome is rarely predictable and the crew has to be ready for anything.

Primarily, sports coverage is a numbers game. There are scores, player numbers and statistics to be organized and presented in a dynamic view on demand. Multichannel character generators and fast operators are a must. Success here often depends on careful pre-game or pre-game-date assembly and storage of names and player stats. CG and tape are the most heavily involved elements during the pre-game production where ten-things-at-once displays are made to happen with the push of a button during the game. A recent addition to the already heavy graphics load in sports has been the introduction of real-time relay and display. In football, this would include hang time of a kickoff presented as a running stopwatch. In baseball, the speed of a pitch and the speed of the batted ball can be shown as a dynamic cell in a corner bug where the ball/strike count and base runner graphic is often included. At Turner Field in Atlanta, this information comes from six laser guns mounted at strategic points. The speed data is sent to the truck, into the CG and through the video switcher. Instantly, viewers know how much wear and tear the game is putting on Greg Maddux's arm, in one mile-per-hour increments. The stadium also has a robotics op position from which a battery of robotic roof cams and announcer cams are run. These individual video lines are also fed to the truck via the stadium breakout panel. This is a massive eight-foot wall of audio, video and camera connectors bringing signals to the truck area from all points in and around the stadium.

Also busy on pre-game vignettes are the tape operators. While some trucks have the replay ops in the production room with the director, the more typical plan is for all these people to be seated in a row in the tape room. Each has a slo-mo controller with speed lever and a video switcher to select input sources independently. Usually, each replay op is assigned one or two cameras to capture and play back. A fairly recent addition to the tape room is the EVS or "Elvis" as it has come to be known by its operators. This is a digital hard drive video controller for storage and playback, and it can handle multichannel play and record operations simultaneously - a valuable feature during pre-game production. The operator sits in front of a quad split monitor that shows the two inputs at the top and the two outputs at the bottom. While a field interview is being recorded with manager Bobby Cox on one channel, video replays of game moments to which he is referring can be searched on the other channel and tagged with labels like "Chipper Jones big hit 1" or "A-Jones game save catch." The simultaneous building and recording can be done by a single operator.

Many systems are now equipped with the "ad cam." In baseball coverage, this graphic tool puts an ad banner behind the batter as seen from any chosen camera. This is often the outfield camera that shoots over the pitcher's shoulder as the pitch is thrown. The ad, only seen by television viewers, can be changed at any time and shown for the entire game or just for certain innings as previously arranged between the sales department and clients.

The main production benefits of digital trucks are delivered to viewers in the trucks' audio and video switching capability. Video switchers for sports production are heavy on effects banks and "e-mems" in which various dynamic and repeated effects are stored for instant recall. The graphics-heavy nature of sports production puts a heavy load on the video switcher. Good organization plus the routing versatility of this tool makes the most notable difference between a super show and a host of viewers reaching for the remote.

At the camera end of the cables, there are features that make life much easier for directors and camera ops alike. Instant replay is king in sports production, and while the replay operators are individually switching various cameras into their replay machines, the camera people can know instantly if they are serving on a replay camera through the use of "iso tallies." These small green lights are located on the back of each camera, next to the red line tallies. The camera op can instantly know not only if the camera is on the line live, but also if their camera is being isolated for instant replay without requiring extra chatter on the intercom. As soon as a replay operator selects a camera for input to a replay machine, the green iso tally informs the camera operator. For arena sports like football and baseball, 1:70 lenses get in close at great distances, but lesser zoom ranges may be used for tennis and other more close-in events. Experienced operators are needed with these focal lengths as the action is fast while the depth of focus is razor thin.

Even though effects returns are now standard equipment, sometimes this is a feature that is left inactive or uninstalled. For sports, the effects returns (hopefully two) must be in good working order. The graphic-heavy nature of this format means that names and stats will frequently be keyed over cameras. When renting a truck for sports, it is vital to make sure that the effects returns are installed, configured and actually work when the truck rolls in.

Listening in One less obvious but very effective area where sports production has dramatically improved is in the realm of sound. Where once a single crowd mic hung over the announce booth railing was standard, now we must have the crack of the bat, the growl of the umpire and the smack of the shoulder pads. For effects, shotgun mics have been augmented with parabs. This is an area in which TV sound learned from radio. For sports of almost any type, these two mic types should be in abundance on any production truck and they should be capable of both RF and cable linking to the mixer. Frequency agile RF mics are basic due to the fluid and often uncontrolled situation with RF coordination. For the sound people, an RF spectrum analyzer can spot RF coordination trouble sprouting like grass on its display.

Particularly in auto racing, RF management is serious business because the competitors themselves rely on it so heavily.

With digital sound mixers, setups can be saved and control of routing and input channel EQ is virtually infinite. Some trucks have gone a little too far with this, installing sound boards with an array of starship-like touch screens that must be navigated for every adjustment. This works in the recording studio, but on sports production the audio board must be fast. For most adjustments made during production, conventional knobs and faders still work best in the trenches for sports sound. Good compressors are an essential element usually found lacking at the game's first big play when the announcers begin shouting. These should also be isolated on the announcers' mics to avoid having the crowd sound "pumping" up and down with the commentary. For the sound op, a variety of different sizes and types of monitor speakers are needed, including a strong cue speaker that can be operated at a fairly high volume level. A handy routing feature, regardless of the game, is talent-to-director talkback. That is, a way for the booth announcers to talk at will to the director even when their mics are not on the program line. Discussions need to occur during commercial breaks and other tape segments. This pre-fade announcer mic signal can be brought to a separate speaker at the director position or fed into his or her intercom station through auxiliary program input. It is also great for the sound and tape ops to have this feature. This enables a tape operator to work privately with announcers beforehand in producing pre- and post-game segments. Up in the booth, heavy-duty sound isolating headsets with wind-screened boom mics are standard issue for talent who generally operate in a high ambient noise environment. Dynamic headset mics prove to be the most rugged yet full-ranged type for the close-mic shouting of play-by-play talent. Most announcer units come as a small box with a cough switch and headphone volume control. Many sports announcers prefer to have an uninterrupted line feed in one side and the IFB interrupt on the other. The same sound sources usually apply to the camera positions. The line feed on one side and intercom on the other will allow camera people what they need to follow the action.

The real challenge in designing, building or contracting for sports production is in balancing versatility with simplicity and reliability. This often involves equipment that is complex to set up but simple to operate.

Virtually every major city in theU.S. is outfitting its sports stadiums with hybrid broadcast camera cables that take advantage of fiber optic technology. With the advent of HDTV and other high-speed digital audio/video transmissions, the amount of data being routed to the broadcast truck is continuously increasing (multiple gigabits per second).

Fiber optic cable must be considered in order to properly "future proof" the infrastructure. Multimode fiber is best suited for applications in which links have many connectors that run less than two kilometers. However, the bandwidth of the fiber is limited due to modal dispersion. Conversely, single-mode fiber is best suited for longer distance applications (greater than one to two kilometers) and high data rate applications. Because the fiber is single-moded, modal dispersion is not a limiting factor and much higher data rates can be achieved.

Single-mode fiber is the fiber of choice to enable high data rate transmission, such as the non-compressed 1.5Gb/s HDTV signals.

Optical fiber must be utilized in order to transmit a fully uncompressed 1.5Gb/s SMPTE 292M HDTV signal for distances greater than 100M. For distances less than 100M, enhanced triax and coax cable can be used to transmit the serial digital datastreams. However, care must be taken when installing these types of cables to avoid degradation of the signal.

Because optical fiber is immune to both grounding problems and crosstalk from other cables and does not radiate energy, planning a new facility is less complex. With fiber optic cable, distance or placement no longer limits cable runs from the camera-to-camera control unit (CCU). Unlike enhanced triax and coax cable, the fiber cable can be run next to transformers, high intensity light sources, motors and other sources of "noise" without fear of signal interruption. Fiber cable can be run along rafters, up the side of the stadium, and/or through control rooms, without fear of damage or signal loss.

Powering the camera with the CCU at lengths greater than 1500M has been demonstrated in trials with major camera manufacturers. SMPTE standard 311M, "Hybrid Electrical and Fiber-Optic Camera Cable" gives minimum performance requirements for the cable: two copper conductors for power, two control conductors and two fiber optic strands for video and audio transmission. The copper power components allow the HDTV fiber-based camera systems to operate like the older triax systems, where the cable actually provides power to the camera. This is a big advantage when no local power sources are available for the camera.

Due to the distances and data rates required to broadcast sporting events in HDTV format, fiber is an essential element of the system. The standard fiber optic interface enables efficient and flexible datacasting, resulting in a higher quality image that can be stored digitally and recalled instantly with exacting detail time after time.

ESPN's newest star debuted on Aug. 13 and has quickly established the kind of hip, formidable presence associated with the sports cable network's best-known names. A stylish yet completely functional place that Chris Berman, Dan Patrick and other ESPN anchors and analysts can call home.

"It was time for a change," said Kevin Stolworthy, vice president of studio production and technical operations. "The idea was to get our different shows working off each other to create the sense of a single environment - what we call `seamless' programming. The goal was to achieve one feel, but with unique and distinctive elements."

ESPN's studio overhaul - its first since 1994 - was more than a year in the making, from its conception last summer through the recently completed construction phase. The impetus for change was quite simple, according to the people who were intimately involved in the project: make some changes or risk appearing stagnant.

"In television, sets and set design are very cyclical," said Rick Paiva, senior coordinating director at ESPN. "The time had come for us to take a fresh look at our set design and catch up technically and electronically with what's going on in the industry."

The results of a rigorous self-examination can be seen in a fully revamped studio that features a new set for SportsCenter, as well as in the new homes for programs such as Sunday NFL Countdown, NFL PrimeTime, College GameDay and Baseball Tonight.

ESPN hired Production Design Group. Ltd. (PDG) - the company that created sets for Good Morning America, Dateline NBC, Meet the Press and 48 Hours to create the new studio.

The design components include three specific show areas with desks seating from two to four anchors; an interview area with set anchor desk that also serves as a demonstration area for expert analysts; and a single anchor stand-up/interview area. These sets allow for more movement and diminish the sense of an overcrowded sports desk by comfortably allowing for more reporters and analysts to stretch out, walk around and use a telestrator if needed.

The new studio environment also embraces the latest technological innovation, particularly with the use of plasma and LED screens for SportsCenter and the NFL set. The 16:9 plasma screen is a thin display monitor that provides vertical graphic support alongside the anchor, instead of traditional over-the-shoulder graphics. The LED screens are used as background accompaniment allowing scoring and other statistical information to be displayed while sports anchors report the news.

The result of the collaboration between ESPN and PDG are impressive thus far. What was once a more stolid and functional set has been reinvented as a more action-oriented and information-driven arena teeming with the latest in sports news and analysis.

"We have loyal viewers. What we want them to take away [from the new studio] is a sense of ESPN as the center of their sports universe," Paiva observed. "We want them to subconsciously ask themselves, `Why would I go anywhere else for sports information?'"

At the same time, ESPN is not trying to subvert the sports television medium by placing function (studio design and technological applications) over form (sports news and analysis). "Design for design's sake is useless," Noubar Stone, ESPN's creative director, pointed out. "We haven't reached our objectives if viewers only talked about the new set. We want people to appreciate the scenery and graphics as part of a more pleasurable way to see the whole news and information package that we present."

Said Stolworthy, "People watch us foremost for information. We don't want something that's gaudy or distracts for our viewers. We want people to feel the changes we've made, but ultimately it's all about the latest sports news and highlights."

ESPN also realizes that a fresh studio environment will not by itself increase viewership, ratings and revenues. However, an updated studio environment that further stimulates the information delivery process can only help to reaffirm ESPN's place in the ever-crowded mind of the 21st-century sports fan.